Thoughts on Petraeus

It’s not an understatement to say that I was shocked when I learned last semester that my home institution thought it was appropriate to hire David Petraeus as an adjunct professor at the Macaulay Honors College. As a fellow in the Honors College, a place I have come to think of as my home and as a place that has played a considerable role in my own development as a scholar and a teacher, his appointment made me realize the extent to which faculty voices are silenced at moments like this. I’ve come think of his hiring as a “parting gift” from our outgoing chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, who announced the hire and then retired, leaving, I am sure, a wake of confused administrators to deal with the logistics. Within a few weeks of his hire, it became apparent that CUNY wasn’t even sure where the money to pay the man was going to come from, an issue which became its own PR mess:

I have a mother who gives gifts like this—things you don’t want, can’t use, didn’t ask for—and who uses gifts as a way to exert power, so I am also well trained to know that authorities who give gifts tend to get pissed when you try to return or exchange said object. Better to say “thanks” and make room in the closet for yet another set of embroidered towels.

And, in the wake of this hire, this is what it seems like we’re trying to do—make room for the general. Fair enough. I understand and appreciate the theory that a college is a place that can make room for controversy and debate and that students may gain invaluable experience as a result. I understand, as well, the perhaps less noble notion that such a hire will raise the “currency” of a CUNY degree, as well as provide a certain set of students (those who apply and are selected to take classes with the general) access to a unique historical and well-connected figure. I get that there is room, but I am wondering if we are also going to make room to account for the ways in which the general’s presence is affecting the larger student body—shaping their educational experience indirectly by bringing an air of conflict, securitization, and, to be honest, fear that those who speak out against the general will be punished—as were students who were arrested while protesting Petraeus’s presence at an invite-only event at the Honors College.

Bracketing for a moment the appropriateness of such events and what message they send to the faculty, students, and staff, it is the presence of a security apparatus that is reverberating throughout classrooms—classrooms Petraeus will never set foot in. Whether I want him on my syllabus or not, Petraeus has brought with him into my classroom a much larger conversation about government, power, and surveillance. Yes, these are teachable moments, but I’m just wondering how we’re going to account for its indirect lessons. When the majority of students understand that they literally cannot access a faculty member, because he is surrounded by a retinue of bodyguards and policemen, what lessons are sent? When they realize that protesting is met by a powerful security apparatus, how do we maintain the fiction that this hire is inspiring and encouraging productive debate? Conversely, and maybe this is what I am most sympathetic to, there are students who are barely touched by what happens at the Honors College (a student in my course last night said, “I think I might have heard of it”) and who are only now coming to study recent history and to make sense for themselves of who a figure like General Petraeus is or means. For them, a security apparatus that does truly warn them not to “get too close” is marking their intellectual development. While I know that many are taking up the phrase “militarization” to understand Petraeus’ presence, for me it’s this boundary marking, these unintended lessons, that worry me the most. I’m not sure how to make room in my closet for these unwanted gifts, frankly. Nor, am I sure I want to.


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